Crafting a sequel that lives up to a critical and commercial hit is almost as difficult as making Hawkeye seem cool. Such a feat is especially daunting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where no second installment — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” excepted — has risen above that all-too-common category of blockbuster: the CGI buffet of “meh.” When the film being followed up is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which many consider to be the MCU’s crown jewel (or rather, Infinity Stone), it would have been understandable if director James Gunn crumbled under the pressure. The good news: he didn’t.
In some ways, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” could never live up to the near-perfect standard set by the original. In others, though, the film surpasses its forbearer, especially with the level of heart it brings through its themes of family — particularly fatherhood. As “Vol. 2” opens, we find the answer to the mystery posed by the original’s finale — the identity of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Though it’s not David Hasselhoff as Quill always wanted, the alternative isn’t bad at all, as the godlike Ego the Living Planet (the eminently cool Kurt Russell) reveals himself as Quill’s father. Pretty soon, the two are playing catch, and seeing Snake Plissken from “Escape from New York” have a laugh with Andy Dwyer from “Parks and Recreation” is as gratifying as one would think.
“Vol. 2” pairs off its main characters to give them moments to shine and maximize the potential for an emotional arc. The film largely succeeds, as each Guardian spends time delving into introspections that force them to change for the better. Seeing Gamora (Zoe Saldana) mend fences with her bloodthirsty sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is heartwarming, as is watching the empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff) have great heart-to-heart moments with the bombastic warrior Drax (Dave Bautista). These quiet character beats comprise a second act that, while making “Vol. 2” feel slow compared to the perfectly paced original film, become essential in setting up a truly emotional finale.
Though the original film was generally well-received, its universal complaint was its weak villain. While “Vol. 2” has a better baddie than most MCU entries, the bar has been set astoundingly low by the likes of Crusty Eyes (“Doctor Strange”) and Evil Legolas (“Thor: The Dark World”). Despite the almost nonexistent bar, “Vol. 2” disappointingly rushes its villain toward acts of depravity in a jarring, almost illogical fashion. The film quickly piles on the mustache twirling, and it relentlessly engages in battle scenes that feel just a little too long. For now, Loki can rest easy knowing he’s still the MCU’s only great villain.
Ultimately, though, “Vol. 2” is conscious of everything audiences loved about the first film. It doubles down on the humor that made the original infectious, and characters such as Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) — who, thankfully, has a substantially larger role in this film — have never been funnier. Plus, if you thought Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing to “I Want You Back” at the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy” was cute, there’s a scene in “Vol. 2” so adorable that you likely won’t recover from it anytime soon, as your eyes search for meaning in an otherwise Groot-less reality. As with the original, this film’s soundtrack is perfectly curated — Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” never fails to elicit giddy smiles, especially when played during a jaw-dropping, one-shot battle scene.
While “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” isn’t the best Marvel film (that honor remains with its predecessor) it belongs in the MCU’s upper echelon and earns the rare distinction of being a fun, emotionally satisfying sequel in a world where “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” “Jaws 2” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” are all films that exist. And as an added bonus, the final of five post-credit scenes — yes, five — contains Stan Lee’s (arguably) best MCU cameo.